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Geisha Fixation 

Two seemingly unrelated plays take different approaches to racial concerns

Wednesday, Mar 9 2005
Pity, oh pity, the straight white male. From Shakespeare's lust-coddled Marc Antony to Miller's has-been Willy Loman, the King of the Jungle is frequently reduced to a mewing kitten on the stage, even by dramatists who share his demographic profile. Philip Kan Gotanda's one-act play White Manifesto and Other Perfumed Tales of Self-Entitlement or Got Rice (half of a two-part bill called "Under the Rainbow") gives the straight white male a particularly scary twist by introducing us to a subcategory of the much-maligned species: one who digs Asian women.

Richard Saugus is a WMWA (pronounced wim-wah). That's White Male With Attitude to you and me. Over the course of an hour, Saugus proceeds -- aided only by a couple of props, namely two exotic-looking, scantily clad women -- to share his opinions about dating the "exquisite Oriental snow princess who looks up at you like you were the most noble being on the face of the Earth and wants you to fuck her silly," otherwise known as the Asian-American female. Looking like he stepped right out of a Brooks Brothers catalog (though he claims to be wearing Armani) and sounding at times like a sex advice columnist and at others like a university professor, the twentysomething, Ivy League-educated Saugus -- played by Danny Wolohan in Asian American Theater Company's world-premiere production -- displays an encyclopedic knowledge about relationships between Asian-American women and Caucasian men. In between sips of Opus One, Saugus imparts information on everything from effective Asian-girl pickup lines and pillow talk technique to useful acronyms (KGG stands for "Korean Girl G-spot," etc.) and how to differentiate among Korean, Japanese, and Chinese women.

Most plays that deal with racial issues contain some form of ethnic stereotyping. It's difficult to expose the hypocrisies and injustices inherent in racially unequal societies without drawing upon popularly held beliefs about different demographic groups. Onstage, this method tends to backfire: Stereotyping can be an effective vehicle for revealing social injustice, but because it takes fully realized, three-dimensional characters to create compelling drama, the flimsy, two-dimensional types that populate many race-issue plays often make for a disappointing night out at the theater. Watching the work of Anna Deavere Smith (Fires in the Mirror, Twilight), for instance, makes you feel like you're being bludgeoned with a blunt instrument. Even Rebecca Gilman's Spinning Into Butter, which examines ethnic unrest on a college campus as a result of positive discrimination, substitutes engaging theater for dramatized social science. The stereotype of the Asian female dating the Caucasian male is used rather predictably in other Gotanda plays (such as Fish Head Soup), but as White Manifesto so admirably proves, clichéd characters and situations aren't necessarily a bad thing; it's what you do with your stereotypes that counts.

Gotanda's perspective on racial stereotyping is gutsy. Instead of taking the more obvious route of dramatizing the straight white male's geisha fixation from an Asian perspective, Gotanda -- who lives in California and is a third-generation Japanese-American -- makes Saugus the spokesperson. As Saugus arrogantly but astutely points out, "There's a long and accepted tradition of white males speaking on behalf of Asians, for Asians, through Asians, and more recently Asian-Americans." The character even goes so far as to cite the likes of Edward Said, Gustave Flaubert, and Karl Marx -- bastions of the mainstream literary canon -- to back up his thesis. The effect is powerful: In one deft move, Gotanda demonstrates and explodes the predatory power of the straight white male over the Asian female and Asian culture as a whole.

White Manifesto isn't compelling just because of the strength of the writing. Without a mesmerizing actor in the central role, the play could feel dangerously heavy-handed. Thankfully, Wolohan -- who recently appeared in Campo Santo/Intersection for the Arts' world premiere of Gotanda's A Fist of Roses -- perfectly embodies the all-American boy. Delivering his speeches with the relaxed smile and casual confidence of one who "moves through the world as if it were tailor-made for him," Wolohan even manages to make us, against our better judgment, sympathetic toward Saugus and his kimono-sniffing ways. The ease of his manner has an unsettling result: Saugus seems sinister and pathetic, smart and funny all at once.

Wolohan's icy-slick performance is further enhanced by those of Pearl Wong and Suz Takeda as Saugus' geisha-girl sidekicks. With their stylized gestures that make them look like clockwork TV game-show hostesses, the two women surround Saugus like a decorative frame. Explicitly, these Oriental ornaments underline the power relationship between Caucasian men and Asian women. Implicitly, their carefully orchestrated movements (the work of choreographer Erika Chong Shuch) make Saugus look like a scientific specimen under a microscope, a strange and lowly life form with all the clout of petri dish mold.

White Manifesto is the second in a double bill of Gotanda plays. The first, Natalie Wood Is Dead, has little of the ninja prowess of the other piece. Unlike White Manifesto, Natalie Wood -- which focuses on the relationship between a mother and her daughter, two Asian B-movie actresses played by Diane Emiko Takei and Pearl Wong, respectively -- doesn't do anything remarkable with the clichés presented in its text. Stereotypes about Asian women, such as their predilection for plastic surgery and other forms of artificial cosmetic enhancement, are liberally tossed around, but like the younger character's predictable aversion to her mother's ways -- and, let's face it, when have children ever agreed with their parents? -- the work doesn't reveal anything new about the Asian-American experience. Gotanda, who also directs both one-acts, further undermines the play by making it feel as though it's being acted underwater: Despite sassy performances by Wong and Takei, the action and delivery move at a plodding pace.

Natalie Wood Is Dead and White Manifesto are collectively titled "Under the Rainbow: A Play of Two One Acts," which seems an odd way to present them. Though both works are by the same author and deal with perceptions of Asian women, they still feel more like independent pieces than two halves of an organic whole. While White Manifesto clearly stands on its own, Natalie Wood might have been better performed alongside Gotanda's earlier play Yankee Dawg You Die, which features two male characters, both Asian movie actors at different stages of their careers; as Gotanda himself mentions in the program notes, it's a natural counterpart to Natalie Wood. Unlike "Under the Rainbow," a double bill of those two plays would have done something thought-provoking with the racial stereotypes.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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